Devon, PA. Peter Haworth has rightly drawn our attention to the new Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.” Much should be said in response to this document, and much has already been said in fora worthy of FPR readers’ attentions (here and here, for instance). Unfortunately, I have not had time to reflect upon the document itself, and I do not have time now to write anything of substance at the present moment.
I would be tempted simply to share an anecdote. One evening not so long ago, as I drove down the road with my family, my wife chuckled to herself. I asked her what was so funny, and she said something to this effect: “Given what we all know about human nature, how puerile, pathetic, and violent it is, it strikes me as more than naive that there are actually persons out in the world who think the solution to the ills and abuses of this or that community or institution is simply to create another one, bigger and more powerful.” She was, that is, laughing at the false idol of the modern age, whose inmates, having abandoned their Maker, go in search of ever more authoritative layers of bureaucracy, in hopes that someday they will find the “God-layer,” that administrative order so panoptic, efficient, and rule-abiding that all shall be well at last.
There are some, I have noticed, who now accuse the Pope of being so gullible as to set up a false idol as our prospective the nomos of the earth; I am not so doubtful of his wisdom, but I do find the confidence he and other members of the clergy display in large secular institutions troubling. Has modernity not produced enough teratological horrors already? Is not the solution to our present ills to slay such monsters? To rediscover the natural scale to which every human enterprise restrains itself if only it is not distorted by the abyssal ambitions of men who would be their own gods?
Well, for the present, I shall simply repeat remarks that concluded my essay on Caritas in Veritate, published more than a year ago (in two parts: One and Two). That essay focuses primarily on Pope Benedict XVI’s account of justice as a minimal condition of charity and seeks to locate that profound and convincing theology within a broader account of human nature. This focus explains why so few readers suffered through to the end. But, at the end, I noted how odd I found the Pope’s optimism regarding international political institutions and how inadequate the accusation of “relativism” is regarding the absolutist and immanentist managerial elite that populates the political class of Europe, the United Nations, and most of the Americas. I wrote:
Benedict is “aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living, and, in any event, undervalued.” As the later pages of the encyclical outline, a charity rooted in technocratic systems that neglect the fullness of personhood results in the soul-destroying subsidies of the welfare state, in which a state incapable of love provides the necessities of physical life to masses it leaves to rot spiritually in marginalized housing projects. Charity of this sort does not care how its object lives, only that it has received the necessary quotas to sustain life—it sustains biological cells, but does not nourish persons. Further, because our age lacks almost entirely in a sense of the unconditional dignity of the human person, it often advocates fiercely for arbitrary rights to hedonism and immoral license, while failing to respect “the right to life and to a natural death.” In willfully blinding himself to the true image of the human person, modern man transforms the actions of charity into grave evils and tawdry and frivolous perversions. At its best, charity without truth “degenerates into sentimentality.” That is, it manifests itself as soft expressions of good will utterly lacking in intelligible content or sustained direction.
In saying this, Benedict responds to the opposition more charitably than it deserves. It is true that, in mundane circumstances, liberal society often professes a congenial relativism, and it is equally true that the technocrats of modern charity—who discover the redemption of man in contraception, efficient abortion, and maximized “private” freedom with neither self-government nor moral judgment—reject the identity of “Agápe and Lógos”, the “God of the Bible” who is “Charity and Truth, Love and Word.” But this does not mean they lack a conception of truth or that they are in fact mere sentimental relativists. They rather advocate an immanent and materialist absolute. They do not simply greet discussion of mankind’s dignity as the image of God with shrugging, accepting shoulders, but turn on it with all the indignation and contempt of a purse-lipped Belgian minister of parliament. This claim of God giving man life and knowledge in love they view as a tyrannical imposition, as the greatest threat to unaccountable self-authorship imaginable.
And, of course, they are correct to feel so threatened. As Blaise Pascal observed, men fear that religion might be true—because the terrible consequence of our existence having been given to us in love is that it actually might matter to someone other and greater than ourselves, and thus, we may in some sense belong to another and not to ourselves. For sexual and investment purposes, modern man demands emancipation from such divine possession even at the cost of knowing the truth about himself. Modern self-ownership does not result in a relativism regarding other peoples’ activities, either. Rather, it has a logos of its own: the quantitative maximization of pleasure protected by the concealment of others’ suffering and relief from the consequences of others’ and our own actions and beliefs.
Such a principle of truth—of the immanent and absolute materialist telos of secular man—requires an immense superstructure of state control. One needs the State to prevent the birth of children out of wedlock; the State to feed and educate those children who somehow “get born”; the State psychologically to condition society not to blame the separated parents and to condition the children not to feel unloved and neglected despite having parents who neither love nor care for them. One needs aid programs to feed the hungry abroad so that one need not hesitate to eat all one wants, however gluttonously, at home. One needs not simply public “spaces” free from reminders of moral judgment, of our created identity and transcendent destiny (which may, after all, include eternal life in Hell); one needs a public realm positively scoured of all indication that human actions are of any consequence whatsoever so long as those actions are not undertaken in explicit “hatred” of oppressed racial and sexual minorities. In brief, in order to live for no one besides oneself it takes—certainly not a village, but—a bureaucracy of global scope and power.
This is the truth, the logic, to which modern liberal society subscribes. That Popes from Paul VI to Benedict XVI should be so willing to work with the bureaucratic superstructures of this logic for charitable ends is, initially, puzzling. But one may justly remind oneself—as Benedict seeks to remind the world in Caritas in Veritate—that man is a creature brought into being by Truth and Love, who dwells in them, and who, finally, lives for them. He cannot look at his own face, or into the face of another, and long ignore the absolute and all-encompassing call of human personhood and the personhood of God. He discovers there, in that face, that charity and truth precede everything and order everything. We cannot even speak the word “justice” without a mouth that has come to us as a gift of God’s charity; and so, in speaking the truth in love, the Christian reminds every person and all of humanity that love is “a force that has its origins in God” and that each “person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him . . . he becomes free.” Benedict’s encyclical, like all Catholic social teaching, is a summons to freedom that calls us not primarily to the revision of social and political forms, but to the discovery of our foundations in the God who gave himself till he was emptied.